MP sparks debate over virtual public hearings for controversial Bela bill
A petition has been launched to increased access to public hearings for the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill, which will allow schools to sell alcohol outside of school hours
The controversial Basic Education Laws Amendment (Bela) Bill has sparked a debate among MPs over the use of virtual platforms for public hearings.
ACDP MP Marie Sukers, a member of the portfolio committee on basic education, has started an online petition to compel parliament to use virtual platforms for public hearings to increase access to the hearing process. The bill, which has been slated for allowing schools to sell alcohol outside school hours among other things, was introduced to parliament in December 2022. It is in its final legislative stages and the public hearing process is under way in the nine provinces.
In the petition, Sukers complained that the hearings were “inaccessible to the broader public”. She accused some members of the portfolio committee of “resisting any suggestions of making these hearings accessible virtually, in addition to the physical hearings”.
The hearings were postponed in March until after the Easter weekend.
“If I cannot show the portfolio committee, before then, that the South African public, by signing this petition, insists that their democratic right to public participation be fulfilled, the process will conclude without the broader South African public knowing the full effects of the bill,” Sukers said.
Sukers said the bill has far-reaching effects for pupils, parents, teachers and school governing bodies (SGB). She said some of the amendments include making grade R the compulsory starting age, forcing homeschooled children to be registered and criminalising parents for not sending their children to school instead of providing them with social support.
She said the bill, if passed in its current form, will prohibit teachers from doing business with the government and from becoming directors of public or private companies, allow schools to sell alcohol outside school hours and give department heads control over language policies.
“Parliament is currently struggling with a limited budget, which affects the quality and quantity of public hearings. Implementing virtual hearings will be a cost-effective and practical solution that allows for more extensive public participation,” she said.
Parliament is currently struggling with a limited budget, which affects the quality and quantity of public hearings. Implementing virtual hearings will be a cost-effective and practical solution that allows for more extensive public participation.ACDP MP Marie Sukers
Sukers told TimesLIVE that about 5,000 people had signed the petition, which she started on March 23.
She said she intended to include the petition in her presentation when the committee meets on Tuesday. The hearings are set to resume in Gauteng on April 28.
Bongiwe Mbinqo-Gigaba, the chairperson of the portfolio committee, said she was aware of the petition.
“But I must put in on record that there is nothing that the portfolio committee does which [Sukers] is not part of. Meaning there is no decision that is taken by the portfolio committee which she was not part of,” said Mbinqo-Gigaba.
“We never agreed on holding virtual hearings. As parliamentarians, we are going to every province to hold public hearings and she is part of that programme. We are in the third and last phase of the process.”
Mbinqo-Gigaba said her committee invited the public to submit written submissions during the first phase of the hearings.
“We have processed that and we were able to tell, based on the submissions, the feelings of South Africans. Second, we invited the public to come to parliament and make oral submissions. [Sukers] was part of that process,” Mbinqo-Gigaba said.
“In the petition, [Sukers] is claiming that those who homeschool their children are the ones having a problem with the fact that we are not holding virtual hearings. We can hold virtual hearings. If I can be honest with you, the majority of the people who made oral submissions are those homeschooling their children.”
Mbinqo-Gigaba said the portfolio committee had already processed the oral submissions.
“We are now in the last phase where parliamentarians are going out to the public. Remember there are people who are not well-educated and were not part of the written submissions. There are those who could not afford to come to parliament to make submissions. We are now going to the public.”
Mbinqo-Gigaba said Sukers had written to her and asked that the committee consider using the virtual platforms. But she said the letter has to be considered by the portfolio committee. She said if all goes according to plan, the public hearings will be concluded in May. Mbinqo-Gigaba said people had mixed feelings about the proposed amendments.
“Remember, we are amending 56 clauses here,” she said.
“People wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with the whole bill. For instance, those who homeschool their children have a problem with clause 37, which says that children should be monitored by the department of education. They don’t support that. They want to be entirely independent. Others have a problem with clause 8. They don’t want alcohol to be sold at schools after hours and even for fundraising processes.”
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